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Montana’s Bass Master
Tim Johnston of Kalispell to compete in the most prestigious professional fishing tournament in the world
Tim Johnston qualified for the Bassmaster Classic. - Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
In two weeks, more than 50 elite anglers will converge on Lake Guntersville, the largest lake in Alabama at 69,000 acres, for the Bassmaster Classic.

It’s the biggest, most prestigious professional fishing tournament in the world and features three days of fervent casting on national television for the coveted “World Champion” trophy and $300,000 first-place prize.

When the oddsmakers looked at this year’s lineup of 56 competitors they tabbed a few top contenders and presumptive favorites, including past champions and professional all-stars of the sport. Out of that group, they named the ultimate underdog, an amateur with a 150:1 shot of winning the Classic.

Meet Tim Johnston of Kalispell. He’s a 45-year-old nurse anesthetist with a generous smile, a lifelong passion for fishing and a mean cast.

“He would shake up the bass fishing world with a win at Guntersville,” wrote Ken Duke with B.A.S.S., the organization that runs the annual Bassmaster Classic.

Reflecting his good nature, Johnston laughs off the long odds stacked against him. He even emailed Duke and said he agreed with the assumption that an unknown amateur from Montana would have a lot to overcome in order to out cast the best in the world.

But that doesn’t mean Johnston is counting himself out.

“A bass is a bass,” he says, smiling. “You’re only as good as your next cast. You just have to go fish. Anything can happen. As long as you’re in the tournament, anything can happen. That’s what’s neat about being there: Fish it and see where it goes.”

Johnston is only the third angler from Montana to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic. Stan Fisher from Trout Creek qualified in 2000 and Jay Evans from Corvallis made it in 2009.

As a member of the local Western Montana Bass Masters club, Johnston rose through the ranks and qualified through the national championship tournament in October, emerging as the top angler from the Western Division and tenth overall.

“It’s quite an elimination process. Literally, there are hundreds of thousands of guys trying to qualify for those 56 spots,” says Don Collins, president of the Western Montana Bass Masters club.

“(Johnston) is a strong man of faith. He has a lot of confidence in himself and believes in what he’s doing. The guy has a level of concentration that’s really hard to match.”

Johnston has developed his prowess as a fisherman over a lifetime of casting. He’s been fishing ever since he was old enough to pick up a rod. Growing up in Southern California, he would sneak onto a golf course near his home at night where a giant pond sat loaded with bass.

“I would go there every night after the marshal left and fish,” he says.

A true passion surfaced, and at 15 he saved up enough money to buy his first boat. He would regularly watch Bassmasters on television and meticulously study other fishermen.

“It’s more than just casting and winding. There’s a lot to fishing,” he says. “It is a science.”

He adds, “There are variables out of your control and that makes fishing fun. Weather. Mechanical failures. Someone fishing in youy best spot. You have to learn to work through all of that. That’s fishing.”

In 1990 he moved to Montana and got a job with the A.L.E.R.T. air ambulance based in Kalispell. After 11 years he moved into his current profession as a nurse anesthetist and now commutes between Kalispell and Plains, where he works at Clark Fork Valley Hospital.

When he first came to Northwest Montana, he wasn’t sure what the bass fishing would be like.

“The stereotype is that it’s only a trout fishery,” he says, but to his pleasure that wasn’t the case.

Some local anglers took Johnston out and introduced him to Montana’s bass fishery, which spans from east to west and features some bountiful sites, like Fort Peck Reservoir and Lake Mary Ronan.

After joining the Western Montana Bass Masters club, which is the oldest in the state, he began fishing in tournaments across the region.

To qualify for the Bassmaster Classic, an angler must put together an impressive streak of successful fishing. At these tournaments, fishermen are judged on the size of their five best fish. The tournaments can last eight hours a day for three or four days.

To prepare, Johnston studies the waters, bait and fishery. He also undergoes a rigorous workout regime.

After all, anyone who says tournament fishing isn’t an active sport hasn’t competed.

“It’s like swinging a bat for eight hours,” he says.

Montana hosts three official qualifying tournaments each year and last summer and fall he was one of 12 nominated to the official state team. That sent him to his native state of California for the divisional tournament in April. Johnston was the top finisher from Montana and third overall, earning him an invite to the national championship in Arkansas. On Lake Dardanelle in October, Johnston finished as the highest scorer in the Western Division and 10th overall, earning him the exceptional distinction of qualifying for the ultimate tournament, the Bassmaster Classic.

“I wasn’t nervous during the fishing, but the weigh-in kind of gave me some butterflies because you don’t know for sure,” he says. “It was pretty special to be able to qualify. I just feel very blessed. God blessed me a lot to be in that tournament.”

Though he may be the ultimate underdog in two weeks, Johnston will be the fan favorite among his wife, Delane, and two sons, Skeeter and Case, who are attending the Classic, Feb. 21-23. He plans to share the entire experience with them while enjoying every minute of it, grateful to be there doing something he loves.

“The event itself is real special,” he says, “but the journey getting there and the people you meet and who help you out, it’s wonderful.”
 
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